How To Write a Novel (When You Think You’ve Forgotten How)

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a pathological procrastinator. I don’t know why, but I do know that I have never been able to delay gratification. So instead of rewarding myself with 7 hours of OJ: Made in America when the first draft of Book 2 is done and dusted and I can relax and enjoy it guilt-free, I watch it now and tell myself I will write after. I mean, I’d just be distracted by my wanting to watch it otherwise, right?

(Side note: OJ: Made in America is truly incredible TV.)

I joke that I’d call my would be productivity guide Don’t Start Until It’s Already Too Late – and that’s pretty much what I do. I can only work under pressure, while panicking. I read somewhere that the procrastinator’s sweet spot is the exact moment when the fear of creating something crap is overtaken by the fear of not having enough time to create anything at all. That’s almost always when I start work – and not a moment before.

This past year or so, my procrastination problem has got worse. This is the first time I’ve ever had to write a book under contract, and I’ve had to do it in a period of time that’s, at most, half as long as the time I spent writing the first one. So for starters, you’ve got pressure. I believe procrastination is something like 30% laziness and 70% fear. Distress Signals has been incredibly well received by critics, book bloggers and readers. It’s wonderful but it’s also terrifying. Can I do this again? How did I do it the first time? So, we’ve got plenty of fear in the mix too. I’m a binger, in that I do my best work when I can clear my schedule, lock myself away and write from dawn to dusk – or maybe through the night – without stopping, hopped up on caffeine and sugar. A slow and steady 1,000 words every day just doesn’t work for me.

But now, I’m much busier than I was when I was writing most of Distress Signals that way. Being in university full-time means essay deadlines and exams and more reading than any person who sleeps could possibly do (I maintain). Then there’s everything Distress Signals demands as a book that’s out in there in the world. Online promotion, U.S. edits, a one-day 10-stop bookshop road trip, a signing, an interview for a newspaper and preparation for a literary festival in a couple of weeks are just some of the things I’ve had to do in the last two weeks. So most days I just can’t binge-write any more. The schedule is too busy to clear.


Last Friday I visited ten bookstores in Limerick, Shannon, Ennis, Newcastle West and Tralee. The Eason’s on O’Connell Street in Limerick had a side entrance onto Cruises Street – perfect! (Distress Signals is about a murder on a cruise ship.) 

So we’ve got more fear, more pressure and then more things to do/less time in the mix too. It’s the perfect storm. It’s the reason why the first draft of Book 2 still isn’t finished, even though my original goal – back in the rose-tinted days of last summer when the world was all rainbows, puppies and unrealistic plans – was to have a vomit draft by last Christmas and a first draft by the end of April, just before Distress Signals came out.


(I really want to go back to Summer 2015 Catherine and slap her in the face. Hard.)

The good news is we’re almost there. I’m almost there. This is the last week I’ll work on this draft of the book. But I’ve had to sort of trick myself into writing it.I’ve had to hunt down procrastination, sedate it, bound and gag it and lock it in a basement room. (Hey, I’m a crime writer, okay?) In the process, I’ve been reminded of things – tips and tricks and truths – that I’d forgotten. In case you’re struggling with your project, here they are.

Build Write It and They Will Come

I’m a big plotter, so the first thing I have to do in order to write a book is sort mine out. I don’t plan everything out in advance, but I like to have some signposts along the way. I open a Word document and create a simple outline using numbering. It’ll be a longer version of this (the notes in square brackets pertain to my specific plot):

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 09.47.45

Then what I’ll do is I’ll take my ideas for scenes, plot developments, etc. and fill as much of this in as I can. The problem was that when I sat down to do this for Book 2, I ended up with mostly blank space. Erm… Hang on a second. Do I even have a plot for this book?! I started to panic. Yep, totally screwed. I’m just an impostor. I knew I’d be found out. But because I was contracted to write this book, I had to sit down and write it anyway, which is when I realised/remembered:

The ideas come while you’re writing.

I’ve put that in bold and italics because it’s the most important point of this whole blog post. You can sit in all the cafes you want with your notebook, chewing on a pen, dreaming up plot lines and characters and killer twists. But – at least in my writing life – I will never come up with stuff that way that’s half as good as what I come up with while I’m actually in the midst of writing the book.

photo 2-7

This is what the plot of Distress Signals looked like by the third and final draft (the one with my editor at Corvus). But this is the end game. It’s okay to start with mostly blank space on your plot charts. You probably should. 

So don’t panic. You may have no idea what goes in Part 3 right now, or you may not even be sure you have an ending. Your plot plan may be mostly blank space. But don’t wait until you have a plot to start writing. A few signposts will do. The ideas will come. Until then, just concentrate on writing this chapter.

Early, First, Focused

There’s a difference between saying ‘I’m going to spend all tomorrow writing’ and ‘I will write for no fewer than six hours tomorrow’. I turned 34 yesterday, you’d think I’d have discovered this before now. But that’s one lesson that has really been driven home to me recently, because so many hours and days seem to disappear into time-sucking, pointless tasks, and I end up with nothing to show for them. It’s not enough to intend to write tomorrow or this week. When you’re a procrastinator, you need to plan exactly how, when and where you’re going to.

I get the most out of my writing days when I:

  • Start early. This is allowing for the fact that even though you may have eight hours free in which to write, you’ll be lucky if you spend half of them actually typing words into your manuscript. The other thing is that you don’t know what’s going to happen during the day. You could get an exciting e-mail or an unexpected invitation or a toothache. Best to start now, as early as you can, before real life wakes up and starts distracting you.
  • Do the writing first. It’s the only way. Otherwise you end up watching OJ: Made in America before noon. (Trust me on this.) Also, the best thing about doing the writing first is that it’s done, it’s out of the way, and you can spend the rest of your time not feeling guilty or anxious, but smug and overly pleased with yourself that you got it done.
  • Focus. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But as I said at the top, these were things I’d forgotten. I’d forgotten that the internet is like a fibre optic cable plugged directly into my brain – I can’t work with it. Blocking apps don’t work for me; I can’t bring myself to turn them on and whenever I do, I pick up my phone before they’ve timed out. The best thing for me to do is go to a cafe or a library, not connect to the wifi and leave my phone in my bag at my feet. I can get as much done in an hour without the internet as I can in a whole day with it, and I write much better when I’m deep in my fictional world as opposed to being yanked out of it every five minutes, distracted by shiny things.

Change of Scenery

When writers moan about how lonely a profession this is, I roll my eyes. To me, that’s like saying ‘I love being hairdresser but – ew! – touching people’s hair. Yuck.’ I love the solitude. I need it. But I work from home, and my home is very small (I’m a writer and I live in Dublin city centre, so I’m essentially in a telephone box), and lately I’ve been experiencing cabin fever. So now I get out.

I’m surrounded by coffee shops and live only 15 minutes walk or so from my university, where there’s a whole library I can work in during office hours that’s comfortable, quiet and even has plug sockets. I’ve been making the most of this. The best things about writing somewhere else are that (a) you have almost none of the distractions you have at home and (b) when you do come home, you can enjoy it. There’s a separation between work and play.


Think outside the box. One day last week I was really, really fed up. The weather was terrible, I was struggling to write and I honestly could not look at these four walls for a moment longer. So I did something drastic: I went on and looked for cheap hotel rooms available for that evening within walking distance of my home. If a hotel has availability and it uses a third-party site like that, it might drop its rates during the day to try and fill empty rooms that night. I got a bargain, threw my toothbrush and my laptop in a bag and walked 30 minutes down the road to the hotel. I refused the receptionist’s offer of the wifi password and brought enough milk and coffee with me to see me through the night. Then I wrote 6,000 words, falling asleep as the sun came up. It was ridiculous, but it was just what I needed.

* * *

So there you go. I also recommend (i) whingeing and moaning to your writer friends over gin-based cocktails, (ii) re-reading Rachel Aaron’s From 2K to 10K on a regular basis and (iii) investing in a Nespresso machine. And reminding yourself that, hey, this is your dream job. Jobs are hard and sometimes they suck and you’re not going to love every single day, and some days will be more productive than others. But don’t forget about the “dream” part. These are all good problems to have. I mean, I used to have a job where I spent my days stapling things together for Satan himself, and my nights crying about my blackening soul in the shower.

This writing gig? It’s not all that bad…


Distress Signals has a new cover! And it’s still only 99p! More exclamation marks! 

How’s your writing going? Do you suffer from procrastination? What do you do to help overcome it? Let us know in the comments below… 

30 thoughts on “How To Write a Novel (When You Think You’ve Forgotten How)

  1. Roy McCarthy says:

    Love this – we can all relate and realise that no one finds this writing malarkey easy. You just have to find your own solutions. Love the hotel escapade. (Right, stop reading blogs, start writing.)

  2. Niq writes says:

    I understand those procrastination tendencies all too well. I have a tendency to have imagined the entire next scene of my story brilliantly and to satisfaction, only to realise I’ve written exactly nothing and it’s all been left in my head! I think there’s also just the fear of starting a new thing. Plotting it all out like you suggested, and tackling that procrastination to just WRITE seems like a good idea.

  3. S.E.May says:

    World class procrastinator here, I even procrastinated in writing this comment. Great tips here.
    I saw Distrss Signals in the bookstore today, Catherine… All the way down here in Sydney. It’s absolutely on my reading list ( I take photos of the covers to remember them.)

  4. Alana Kirk says:

    This is so relevant for me right now I want to cry. Just back from a writing retreat where I had time and space to think,but as soon as I;m back in the mayhem of single parenting I have barely written a word. But, using Scrivener instead of a blank page, I have at least down your first point. Now its just filling in the gaps.. and writing. Love the hotel idea!!!

  5. writeonthebeach says:

    Me too! I’m a world class procrastinator and can only get started if I’m absolutely sure there is no more ironing left in the basket, not even a handkerchief. Although it seems arse-faced, when I’m really really and I mean really stuck I resort to writing longhand. Somehow the ideas flow better. Loved Distress Signals hope it’ll be a great whoopie success in the US.

  6. thehappyhaikuer says:

    ‘The ideas come while you’re writing’. This is so true. I’m awful at getting started but just sitting and typing seems to focus the mind, sometimes it’s a struggle to type quickly enough once you get on a roll! there’s always the delete button!

  7. MarinaSofia says:

    And that’s the reason I love you, Catherine – you describe so much of what I am like… Good luck with everything! You will do it. You did it once, and what a great result it was!

  8. Sarah Potter Writes says:

    Great. Love it. I can so, so, so identify with your procrastination. If I don’t ban myself from the internet until I’ve done at least 4 hours of writing, that’s it. Totally diverted.
    Lots of my traditionally published friends have suffered second book panic. It’s one of the things that has put me off going down that route so far, although I’m coming around to thinking that a deadline imposed by someone else would give me the kick required. The deadline for indie publishing my second book is seriously slipping. Have finished writing it, but can’t get my act in order to get it out there for people to buy.
    I’ve just downloaded Distress Signals onto my Kindle. And congratulations on all the wonderful things people are saying about it.

  9. thenovelprojectchronicles says:

    This is so timely because I’m currently doing a “how to procrastinate” series on my blog

    For me the best way of beating procrastination is to follow John Perry’s (a philosopher from Stanford) advice and don’t try to fight it but work with it – what he calls structured procrastination. Basically, I can do pretty much anything so long as I don’t make it a priority. If I treat writing as task numero uno, then I’ll never do it, but if I tell myself, that I reaaalllllyyy have to fill in those tax returns this afternoon, then I’ll have 5000 words done by the end the night.

  10. velociraptor256 says:

    Another good post – I’m a terrible procrastinator. It helps me to set targets, which is why I do most of my writing with NaNoWriMo or Camp NaNoWriMo. I’m generally a planner, but this month’s Camp is giving me a new appreciation for “the ideas come when you’re writing” – it’s going well in that regard.

  11. S B Williams says:

    I love this list. Honestly, for me, the same exact thing happened when I wrote my first MS which I am now querying out to tons of pubs/agents. It came to me AS I WROTE. Though I had the basic plot outlined, everything literallyi just falls into place as you write. But yes, binge writing for me, is extremely important when writing a first draft. Afterward, I can edit and rewrite stuff in short snippets of time, but if I have to completely redo a chapter, I need at least 2 hours of freedom and time ALONE.
    I also agree, going somewhere else to write helps significantly. When I am at home, 1 the internet is a huge distraction. 2. CLEANING is a huge distraction. Lord, help me, my apartment is a tiny box but it gets SO messy SO fast.
    Thank you for the tips and advice from experience!

  12. Sheree says:

    I love your candid nature (and your blog!) and absolutely agree with you on all points. I have just finished my degree where I raised four kids during and wrote three novels. It all comes down to my love of stories that gets me up at 4am to write before I’m bombarded with things to do. Anyway enough of being distracted by charming authors such as yourself 😄 I’m off to keep writing my fourth novel and perhaps my favorite one yet.

  13. drandomgirl says:

    I am a full-time content writer and it is actually quite tough to write 2500 words in 8 hours (including web research on the topic, image selection and citations). There are days when I just can’t write. I want to do every other thing except my job :). There are days when i fire words out like a machine gun, non-stop.
    I am waiting to see your book here in India and I am definitely going to buy it if I see one 🙂
    Much love and adoration to you Catherine

  14. Erin @ Erin's Inside Job says:

    I can relate to so much of this. I write a blog and I do my best work at home, alone, with tea (ha). I’m also a huge procrastinator, which I’ve finally accepted (acceptance is key). I’m also a personal trainer and as my schedule has gotten busier, I’ve had to take my laptop with me and work where I can which is not as conducive to wonderful writing, but I’m adjusting. As long as I can be somewhere quiet, it’ll work for now!

  15. Karen says:

    I could have written this post myself – it’s so reassuring to know I’m not the only one who works like this. I had a recent deadline, but left the bulk of the writing until the final three weeks when the thought of not getting it finished forced me to do it. I’ve now got to write the first draft of the next one by the end of September, and despite being determined to pace myself this time, I’m STILL procrastinating.

    Love the hotel idea, I might have to try that one 🙂

  16. penpaperandpetals says:

    Procrastination…I am so familiar. This is a great post! It’s something most writers have in common. I love your blog and cannot wait to read your next book!!

  17. Elizabeth Hein says:

    Good advice. I’ve never booked a hotel room, but I have borrowed a family member’s cabin for a few days to push through an edit. No internet or cell service makes me focus.

  18. Miss DreamyMarie says:

    I seriously, freaking love your blog posts. I constantly feel like you took these thoughts from my brain and my whiny soul. ^_^

    It’s been a long and interesting road; pursuing this dream of writing. Those pesky voices telling you, “You’re too old to start chasing this NOW,” or “You don’t have a Masters in English so, good luck with that,” or the 50 million other demon spawns of dream killers whispering in your head.

    Drafting a project now in hopes of self-publishing it early next year and oh, does procrastination LOVE me. It’s nice to hear someone else share the same struggles and it’s the kick in the ass that I needed to get to work! Thanks. 😉

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